Finding Rainbows

I think about failure a lot. What it means to people. How to support my students and create a classroom environment where it’s safe to fail. Making real mistakes (without intending to!) and modeling helpful responses, if I can.

Right now I’m thinking about failure and disappointment because I put significant effort this winter into an application for an amazing professional opportunity. I enlisted help from others in the form of support letters and editorial review of my writing. I contemplated how I practice the craft of teaching as well as my strengths as an educator in an attempt to paint myself as an individual that would fit their program. I’ve been crossing my fingers and hoping that I’ll win this lottery.

It turns out that I didn’t. My chances were tiny – a smaller percentage were accepted into this program than get admitted to Ivy League colleges. Wow! I knew that it was unlikely I would make the cut, and even more so once I learned how many educators applied. Am I disappointed? Yes. Is it the end of the world? No.

I immediately thought about all of the conversations that I had with my own children during adolescence as they wrestled with the outcomes of various sports tryouts and theater auditions. A denial doesn’t necessarily mean that you failed or that you’re not good enough, nor does an acceptance mean that you have it made or you’re perfect. When these types of decisions are made, there are so many factors involved. What does the group look like? What does the group need? What kind of community are we trying to create? What does a “good fit” look like? My conversations with them always looked to the future, to make connections between the hockey tryout or the musical audition with future job interviews. To let my kids know that they were building skills that they could draw upon, including how to deal with disappointment.

Ironically, I was just speaking with a parent of a past student at a social function. She was filling me in on what her daughter was doing, and how a recent school “rejection” turned out to be the catalyst to finding a better fitting school where she was now thriving. I shared with her how just six weeks before being hired at my current school, I had been crushed when turned down by a different one. I found this place as a direct result of not getting that other teaching position. And nine years later, I’m grateful they told me no because I love my school, the ways in which I’m supported to be innovative (and fail!), and the opportunities for me to create my own professional growth.

I’ve already started to think about how to put the work I’ve done toward something else. This application built upon the groundwork I laid last school year creating a professional portfolio; it’s all connected. While I can’t quite see where it might go next, I know that this work will help me in future applications and I won’t be afraid to keep trying for great opportunities. I take heart from a presentation application I made that was turned down for one organization, but then accepted by a different organization six months later. My colleague and I did a great job and are already talking about what we might want to offer to share at the next conference.

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In my life outside the classroom, I play tennis. There is a quote from Billie Jean King that I absolutely love, “For me, losing a tennis match isn’t failure. It’s research.” I’ll absolutely share my “failure” with this application with my students this month as well as in the future. We’ll talk about how to improve and move on when things don’t go the way you want them to, how to learn from mistakes, how to recast failure as research. For now, I’ll write heartfelt thank you notes to my supporters and consider how to parlay the thinking that I did for this opportunity into my next steps for professional growth. Plus, now that this door has closed, I have more clarity on how to direct my limited time this summer to other, also valuable exploits.

It may be cliched to find the rainbow amid the storm, but I’d rather function with that mindset than get completely discouraged by life’s many setbacks.

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Developing an internal locus of control

Recently we were getting ready for a math chapter test on fractions, and I decided to change things up with the way we reviewed. Rather than partnering kids up and working through a class game together Jeopardy-style, I decided to offer some choice in the matter. On a Thursday, I assigned a review packet for homework with directions to pay attention to where they needed more practice.

IMG_0471I created a series of practice questions that reflected the types of skills and concepts represented on the chapter test. I put each one on a card and identified the skill(s) involved, and then I organized them roughly by difficulty and numbered the cards. These skills and identifying numbers went onto a “scavenger hunt” master sheet.

On Friday during math, I explained that students were to move between stations at their own pace. I discouraged working together for the our review but didn’t forbid it if someone was really stuck. We’ve talked a lot about how to help each other without giving an answer, and it’s something we practice. Rather than just a right answer, the solutions on the back included my own working-it-out process, trying to represent different strategies we learned. If after seeing the answer and not understanding why they were incorrect, students could talk to a classmate or get teacher help to understand their disconnect.

Students could solve the cards in any order, and I encouraged them to start with the skills they had noticed the night before that needed extra practice. The master sheet provided a place to record their completion and determine what they wanted to do next. We had challenge work for afterward, and students had two different ways to move into the challenge phase. One – they completed all 13 practice items, but not necessarily the 14th bonus problem. Two – they felt confident of their skills and had completed at least 7 items, with 3 of them in the harder #10-14 range.

It was fascinating to watch! I had the freedom to support the kids who really needed help and reteach concepts as needed, and those kids who had strong mastery of fraction skills could move on quickly to more challenging math thinking. Some kids worked through the items in order, and others skipped around, but for the most part they progressed from easier to harder tasks.

Then afterward, we debriefed. I wanted feedback for my own teaching. Did this work for the kids as well as it seemed? The initial comments were full of praise – kids appreciated the choice and freedom to work where they needed the most review. And then a few shared their frustrations. Some students were trying to do their best work and were distracted by those kids who were using the time to chat with friends while doing the work (or not). Most surprising of all, some students expressed a wish to just be told what to do, to have a specific assignment.

Then in serendipitous timing, I later realized deeper truths to what I had set in motion. Following our Friday review, I spent my Saturday at a conference for challenge course facilitators. During my first session, a light bulb went off. Not only had my students been working on math skills and concepts, but my choice of review structure was an opportunity to develop internal locus of control. Of course it was.

On a challenge course, individuals are obviously facing situations that can be risky. The goal for a facilitator is to create an environment where people feel safe and trust that they can take risks with you. When individuals feel safe to make reasonable choices for themselves, they are moving into a risk zone, but not into danger. There can be carryover from a challenge course into “regular life” as individuals strengthen an internal locus of control, making choices based on their needs, as opposed to an external locus of control, making choices based on other factors, potentially including peer pressure. (Tom Leahy)

So many times in school students are told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. This reinforces an external locus of control. I’ve written before about my conscious intention to build choice for students into my teaching and classroom structure. I’ve known that these choices reinforce my wish to build students’ internal locus of control, but somehow this math activity hit me in a way I hadn’t seen before. Perhaps it was because of those students who demonstrated they were operating under an external locus of control: just tell me what to do and give me a worksheet to review. Wow!

I love it when the world of adventure psychology overlaps with academics in my fourth grade classroom.

The importance of asking…

I try to create relationships with students that are honest and trusting. To that end, when I tell them I want them to be honest, I mean it. Even if they have to tell me something difficult.

Write a letter

Today I asked my homeroom students to write letters to us, their 4th grade teachers. It’s a great mid-year exercise, it is one more place for them to reflect and give us feedback, and it’s an opportunity to set a school-related goal right before we meet with their parents at conferences in a couple of weeks.

I appreciate the kind words and the praise of things they love. Of course I feel good about the affirmation that what I do matters and is helpful. There is humor – “What I like least is homework, of course!” There is insight into skills that they recognize they need to develop right now as learners.

I wonder though about the non-specific letters, the ones that indicate that things are just fine with no elaboration. Are they really fine and this student doesn’t want to write any more? Or do they not trust that I want them to be honest and I’m open to hearing a hard truth? Or perhaps, as with one student, they don’t want to put their ideas on paper, but they are willing to open up a little bit when talking in person.

There is honest truth about what they need. Perhaps more challenge in a specific area. That can sometimes be hard to create, but it’s important to meet the range of learning differences present in my classroom. My co-teacher and I will need to put our heads together and think on it. We need to find solutions for these kids.

And then there is the brave soul who shares with me a hard truth. Something I’ve done that’s embarrassing. Ouch. That makes me pause and reflect. Immediately, I make plans in my head to talk directly and privately with that student. To apologize. To acknowledge my mistake. To brainstorm what I could do differently to convey the message I want this child to hear. To brainstorm how I can help this child be less silly, which just happens to be the student’s chosen goal for the second half of the year. This is a child who recognizes there is work to be done and wants to be treated respectfully. That’s fair.

This is about creating trusting relationships. Relationships are at the heart of learning,  and I want to do my best by these sweet kids entrusted to my care. I hope that by responding to the needs they express to me in writing that I am building their self-advocacy skills for the future.

Teaching is hard work.

Passionate Readers: A book reflection

The start of a new year is a great time to reflect and consider what needs changing. That’s true for my teaching in addition to my life overall. Over the past two months I’ve been reading Passionate Readers by Pernille Ripp. It’s timely to finish it during my winter break, and it’s an incredible opportunity to reflect on my teaching of reading. FullSizeRender 18

I’ve followed Pernille’s blog for a few years now, read her earlier book Passionate Learners, and got to hear her speak at nErDcampMI last summer. Being so familiar with her teaching ideas and approach, there wasn’t anything earth-shatteringly new to me, but instead it was full of reminders of who I want to be as a teacher. Reading her blog in the past, I have often felt that she was channeling my own inner thoughts and that she was someone who understood my teaching philosophy. During parts of the book, I felt like I could actually hear her voice as I did last summer, particularly when she wrote about being a reading warrior.

She speaks to my heart when she writes about the importance of communicating one’s own reading identity and love of reading to students. Being a reading role model is a key component of teaching literacy, no matter what age the students are. I love the idea in her book of creating a display for students to see what I’m reading. While I love the idea of it, I struggle with logistics. Where would I put it? I already have a #classroombookaday display in the hallway. Should I tally my number of books in public? I try to downplay how many books I read to avoid a comparison or competition among students, so that seems to be at cross purposes there. Could we have a staff display of what each of us is reading and change our covers as needed? Hmmm, this looks like a conversation to have with our librarian!

There are other aspects to being a reading role model. One is to publicly admit our own bad habits or slumps. Students then see that we’re not perfect and all readers have things to work on and improve. Talking about our reading plans helps students see that reading doesn’t just spontaneously happen. We plan for what we might read next with a To Read list, a reading challenge, a book club, or some other inspiration. Most avid readers have busy lives and actively create time for the reading they want to do. Self-aware readers see their reading gaps. I have told students that I didn’t like realistic fiction in the past (to outraged gasps!), but that I started bringing more of these books into my reading repertoire and discovered ones that I really loved. Sharing these aspects of our lives should lead to conversations with our students so that they can actively develop metacognition around reading.

And yes, she is a strong advocate for teachers reading the books that their students are reading. YES! How else do my students know that I’m current with kidlit unless they know that I’m reading it? How can they trust my recommendations if I’m not honest about what I’ve read or if I only recommend books that are older than they are? Will I recommend books that I haven’t read? Sure, but with the caveat that I think it looks good. I want the same connections with my students that I share with my friends when we recommend books to one another.

IMG_7460She writes about the importance of the physical space. Reflecting on my classroom, I think that it’s pretty clear that our library is the focal point of the room. It’s comfy and cozy, and I even refer to it as the “living room” sometimes. Yet, reading this book reminds me to ask my students what they think about how it’s working for them. Find out if there is anything that they would change about our space. In the beginning of the year, we made a decision to use our seating options in a certain way. Is that working the way that they would like? Should we change anything about book organization to make the library more useful? Asking their opinions demonstrates respect for their ideas … provided that I truly listen to their ideas and work with them to make the space work for all of us. The relationships that we have in the classroom are a foundation for the quality of  learning that occurs.

This book reminds me other things I want to do. My teaching partner and I began using the Daily 5 structure this year, and I’m still building my repertoire of reading strategies/goals for students to choose from as we teach mini-lessons. Pernille recommends a book that I own, but haven’t yet read – Reading Strategies by Jennifer Serravallo. It’s moved up my To Read list.

Typically midyear, I do another big book purchase. I need to ask my students if there are titles that they wish we had. In the past I’ve had a suggestion box where students can offer ideas for books they would like to read, but I lost it at some point and haven’t replaced it. I purchase books with the intention of creating diverse offerings. A place where all students can see themselves represented and learn about others. I think I need to do a better job of changing the books that are displayed so that more of them get highlighted from our immense collection. One idea from Pernille’s classroom that I LOVE is to create a display of books that come from kid recommendations. A simple rotating wire display for the kids to see what their classmates are reading is a visible reminder that their voices matter.

In December, inspired in part by what I had read in this book, we asked our 4th graders how things are going with reading and what could be better. That stack of reflections is awaiting my deeper reading later this week, but a quick glance and conversations with students reinforced my sense that we don’t have enough reading time in class. I’m discovering that I have to be vigilant about protecting our time to read. I am a teacher who believes strongly in independent reading and the importance of dedicated time for it every day. And yet. Even I succumb to the daily pressure of all that we have to do … or think I have to do. This is an essential that we cannot do without. It is my responsibility to protect our reading time so that students develop further as readers.

There is a wealth of valuable information and teaching philosophy in Pernille’s book, including pointers toward other writers to explore further. She writes about how choice is important to ensuring student engagement. Her approach to incorporating the Notice and Note signposts from Kylene Beers and Robert Probst was intriguing in her comments on written reflections. Book abandonment is an aspect of reading that I want to explore further with my students. To “walk my talk” I’ve added a list to my personal reading journal so that I can keep track of what I’m abandoning and why. I want to try book “speed dating” as a structured way to get more ideas out to my students about books their classmates are reading. There is so much to unpack in this book!

I can’t wait to connect with Pernille again when she comes to the 2018 CCIRA Conference on Literacy next month. The mid-point of the year is a great time to reflect on the school year and evaluate where things are going next. I’m excited to further refine my teaching of reading and become even more of a reading warrior.

Fostering Connections

I’ve been thinking a lot about connections this fall and all the ways that my students can and do connect with others. Sometimes I write in this blog to wrestle with a big idea, but tonight I think I’m simply feeling happy about our month of October.

We recently completed our first Passion Projects – an independent study of a single biography with a timeline of important dates and a written Heart, Head, Hands and Feet summary. That summary is inspired by the work of Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, from Reading WellnessTo celebrate student learning and share their work, we held a fair and invited family members and other classes in the Lower School. I loved seeing my students interact with many other people around their work – parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, administrators, strangers (to them), younger students, siblings, and more.

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Younger students came with a purpose. Second graders carried small notebooks and jotted down information as they asked questions and read projects. Third graders, armed with clipboards, had a longer term vision knowing they would follow up their visit with individual letters to my students. Hopefully, they were also soaking up the atmosphere of the event, imagining themselves at the fair next year when they would be fourth graders. My students squealed with happiness a week after the fair when they received letters. They remembered being on the other side of the letter writing relationship as third graders. Some examined their letters with more “experienced” eyes as they commented on the writing craft of younger students and recognized their own growth over time.

We changed the format so that all Passion Project work was done at school. Benefits accrued throughout the fall from this decision. My co-teacher and I had a better sense of the work students put into their projects because we witnessed it on a regular basis. There was no question of who did the work, as might come up when projects are completed at home. Parents were unanimously happy and supportive. It decreased stress (for everybody) and increased opportunities for play and family time. Again, important connections for my students.

IMG_9758We’re also reaching out to the wider world through connections with authors. I strive to treat book authors as rock stars. I share interesting tidbits with my students – things that I learn from conferences, blogs, and interviews – things that make authors more like “real people.” I’ve gotten to meet many authors and see their presence on social media, and so I know they are approachable and appreciate meeting their young fans. When one student wondered if Melanie Conklin was writing a sequel to Counting Thyme, I suggested that we reach out to her and ask. I took a photo, the student composed a message, we tweeted it out, … and received a reply. Since then, three other students have initiated direct contact with favorite authors, communicating the book love they feel.

A little more up close and personal was our visit with Chris Grabenstein, the author of the Lemoncello Library series (and more!) who came to our school last week. IMG_0028Third and fourth graders designed colorful posters to welcome him when he arrived. Sixth graders arrived first in our gathering place and wrote a handful of words to be used later in the presentation. Chris wowed us with life stories, funny comments, writing tips, and storytelling-on-the-spot with kid-generated elements (including those words). He stayed for lunch, eating with a handful of students and talking about books, among other things. He made quite an impression on the kids, and the fourth graders’ follow up letters made me laugh out loud. I hope Chris does too!

As anyone who has ever worked in a school knows, today – Halloween – can be a CRAZY day. We decided to embrace the crazy, roll with it, and have a fantastic time. Tiring, yes. Boring, no. And wonderfully, full of connections as well. Fourth grade detoured through the Middle School building on the way to lunch to check out all of the pumpkins and their profiles, voting on favorites. Most of our afternoon was filled with a party that is put on by our parents. It’s an annual tradition that is a beautiful example of connection. Our parents plan games and volunteer to run them. They bring food, and they help us put our rooms back to rights. They hang out with us and party like lower schoolers. Our students move through the game stations in multi-age groups. Mixing them up fosters connection – just watch a fourth or third grader look out for a younger student and help where needed. We were surprised to discover last year that there was a mellower atmosphere to the crazy day than in years past. Mixing up the ages helps the grown ups too!IMG_0096

As I look forward to November, a month where it’s common to talk about gratitude, I find myself feeling grateful for all of the connections that we’re building together in our class community, in our Lower School building, and within our larger communities as well.

Mindset and Change

I’ve been thinking a lot about mindset lately and how it impacts one’s reaction to change. While bike riding after school today, I was mindful of and admiring the current seasonal changes which led to my thinking about the changes a school year brings. There are the expected changes – a new class of kids to get to know, understand their learning needs, and build relationships with them as well as new parent partnerships to forge and nurture.

This year I’ve actively sought changes to make – Hello, Daily Five and #classroombookaday. Good-bye, homework time for Passion Projects. These changes necessitate other changes and questions. How do we tweak the schedule to build in more time for our Passion Project work so that we’re not relying on homework time for completion? What mini-lessons do we teach in Daily Five time and at what point in the year? How do we make time for daily picture book reading and what other curricular needs can those books support? And then there are changes that I didn’t seek but are thrust upon me – Hello, new teaching team and good-bye, former teaching partner who built our fourth grade model with me.

Through these changes I’ve noticed that my mindset makes all the difference in how I experience change. Looking for positives and opportunities within change allows me to develop into a better educator. And let’s be honest – it makes me a nicer coworker to be around! I remember learning when I had very small children that the gulf between one’s expectations and reality is directly related to the amount of frustration or anger felt about a tough situation. Bigger difference = more frustration. So what’s the solution? It’s not always easy to change reality, but it can be a catalyst for goal setting and longer-term shifts. What can more readily change are one’s expectations. Recognizing the parameters of whatever frustrating situation one is in is a helpful first step to working toward a successful resolution.

Why does this matter for my students? I think that being aware of my own responses to change and frustration and the interplay with my mindset allows me to better support students as they wrestle with changes and frustrations in their lives. I consider how I can be proactive with them and build skills.

This fall we’ve started out with a biography unit related to our first Passion Projects. Grace Hopper HHHFWe’ve read fantastic picture book biographies and seen how eminent people have responded to roadblocks … Albert Einstein being poorly regarded by his teachers … Grace Hopper being initially denied entrance to the Navy … Lonnie Johnson facing racism as he developed his passion for science and inventing. Over and over again, these biographies illustrate the importance of one’s mindset to achieve one’s dreams and goals through persistence.

In addition to providing and discussing models provided by famous people, I am conscious of my own language and how it affects student mindset. We talk about growth vs. fixed mindset, look for it in books, and celebrate it in one another. One of my favorite words is “yet” – I’m not great at this YET, but with practice I can do better. My attention is tuned to this as I read work by other educators. Recently I can across the idea of calling something one’s “best draft” instead of a “final draft.” Final draft implies that the work is complete and can be no better. Best draft communicates that it is one’s best work to date, but has room for improvement.

And don’t we all have room for improvement? My meandering thoughts while cycling tonight led me to feeling gratitude for my school. It’s a place where we are talking about the importance of making mistakes and learning from mistakes. We desire and try to create classroom environments where students feel safe enough to know that “(t)he only true failure can come if you quit.” (from Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beatty) That mindset permeates our campus and supports me as I both embrace, and wrestle with, change this fall.

Conference Reflection

FullSizeRender 14Over a month ago I attended nErDcampMI in Parma, MI. I intended to reflect on the experience rather quickly so that I could cement my learning and intentions. Instead I found myself in the bustle of travel followed by the transition back home, houseguests, a college-age daughter visiting briefly, and the ramp up to a new school year.

Why did I go? Many people looked at me with surprise when they realized that I was from Colorado. While people do travel great distances to attend this ED Camp, a large number of attendees are from surrounding states (Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio were well-represented). Many of the bloggers whom I follow in the education world attend this conference, and some even created it. It has a lot of buzz in my online wanderings. I was intrigued by that buzz, especially learning about the large number of children’s lit authors and illustrators who attend. I found that it would fit my summer travels this year, and so I went.

It was marvelous! The very first session was a panel of authors and a librarian speaking on the importance of diverse books, especially when written by diverse authors. I walked away with titles to explore, read, and purchase for my classroom library and an affirmation of the importance of providing both windows and mirrors for my students.

FullSizeRender 15I listened to many speakers whose words I’ve read on the page or on a screen. It’s powerful to put a face to a name and see someone as a real person with a distinct (and perhaps unexpected!) personality. I laughed with Tracey Baptiste (The Jumbies), nodded along with R. J. Palaccio (Wonder), and spoke with Alex Gino (George) about the positive impact their book has had on individuals at my school.

IMG_9452I arrived excited to learn more about #classroombookaday and starting a Mock Caldecott unit. I came away with with ideas for both, titles to read for #classroombookaday, and confidence that this was completely doable. I gathered tips for streamlining our reading of picture books to make it more manageable and to fit into available bits of time. When I walked into my school in August, I happened to find a large piece of bulletin board paper on the wall, so I measured and calculated to transform it into a chart to track our reading progress. In some ways it seems quite empty, and yet, in the blank spaces I see the myriad opportunities for us to read and share picture books, building community and connection along the way. Our first week set the stage for fantastic conversation. I already love the insightful comments made in our class. I’m looking forward to collaborating with our art teacher for a Mock Caldecott unit, incorporating new picture books into our #classroombookaday reading to satisfy multiple purposes.

I’m intrigued to incorporate Mystery Skypes into our curriculum. What a fantastic way to use geography knowledge and map reading for an engaging purpose! We can connect with classes in other locations, learn about others, and work toward a common goal. There’s so much good tied up in all of this! A fabulous piece of this also is that we can connect with other classes throughout the year, so the geography work stays fresh. It’s not limited to our fall unit.

I gathered more ideas for how to support flexible seating in the classroom. My new teaching partner and I are incorporating the Daily 5 for the first time and dipping our toes into Responsive Classroom (not trained YET, but we hope to be). I love how multiple ideas support and feed one another, and we’re ready to be even more successful with flexible seating with a few more tools at our disposal.

One of my most admired and inspiring reading warriors is Donalyn Miller. I was lucky to attend a session run by her and Teri Lesesne about creating reading autobiographies with students. I’m intrigued to use it as a reflection later in the year. I was fascinated to consider the different ways you could use these autobiographies with students depending on their age and your curricular needs.

nErDcampMI is a little conference with a big impact, and I look forward to returning some day in the future.  It complemented my other professional reading this summer and likely fed into my reflective work at our K-8 faculty retreat a couple weeks ago. We spent time at the retreat considering the WHY of our teaching – what fuels us, gets us out of bed in the morning, makes our job what we love.

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I realized that my love of reading is one reason why I love teaching. I find such joy and value in reading, and I want to create those connections for other students.

 

Summers “off” for teachers are incredibly valuable. Making time to reflect, to learn, and to read is what helps me as I strive to be a better teacher. I’m excited for this new school year, and I can’t wait to incorporate new things that I learned.

Summer Musings

There’s so much that I love about summer. While it’s not quite true that I have “3 months off” as many people believe, I do have the opportunity to change my daily routine and time to recharge my spirit between school years.

The month of June was filled with professional reading, among other things. My teaching partner and I have decided to incorporate the Daily 5 framework for our literacy time, but we needed to learn a lot more about it. My partner attended a local workshop on Daily 5 and CAFE here in Denver last month, and I read both books. She and I have met to begin talking about how to incorporate it into our collaborative classrooms, and we’ve added a few small items to our August shopping list. I’m excited to add this to our classroom structure and see huge benefits for independent skills for students.

Additionally, another colleague (6th grade teacher) and I met a few times last month to talk about books and reading. I’m thrilled that she also loves Notice and Note by Beers and Probst and wants to bring it into the 6th grade curriculum. I began using it this past school year and was able to share what I learned, my stumbling blocks, and the changes that I’ll make next year. Our new 5th grade teacher is also intrigued, which gives us a solid 3-year span to implement these strategies with our students and hopefully build strong close reading skills.

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That same friend joined me in an online summer book club for teachers. I feel a little out of my league there as most of the teachers are in middle or high school and see direct application for our novels with their students. My fourth graders are a little on the young side for the two novels we’re reading, but I’m benefiting from the way that folks are talking and investigating. I can’t wait until we begin talking about Disrupting Thinking, also by Beers and Probst, and an inspiring book that I’m in the middle of reading. I’m blown away by the number of other professional resources that are jumping on my “To Read” list as a result of reading this single title.

Next week I get to attend nErDcampMI for the first time. I’m excited and nervous both. I’ve been reading the buzz about it for the past couple of years in some of the blogs that I follow, so I’ve kept it in mind as a summer possibility. It happened to line up well with other travel this year, so I went for it. I’m nervous because it pushes my comfort zone as a serious introvert! I’m excited to hear from different authors and illustrators who are attending, and I’m motivated to learn from other teachers. Our art teacher and I are planning to collaborate on a Mock Caldecott unit this year, and I definitely want to hear what others are doing and look for inspiration.

I clearly have the professional recharge under my belt – what about personally? I make plenty of time for tennis, lunch dates with my husband, and time in the mountains with family and friends. I’ve been pushing myself physically as I take long hikes and hone my dirt biking skills. I try to pause and appreciate the beauty around me. Columbine, paintbrush, and various wildflowers are in bloom. Deer, hummingbirds, and other wildlife come near. Slowing down and savoring what’s around me, even when it’s rain and thunderclouds. All of this is soul-filling.

And then there are the books.

Books from my classroom library. My students ask if I’ve read EVERY book…and I haven’t…but I am trying to fill in some of my gaps so that I am more knowledgeable when I recommend titles.

New books and possibilities for our Mock Newbery Club. In May, I had lunch with our book club 5th and 6th graders when author Jennifer Bertman came to visit and we talked about Mock Newbery. How to make it better. What the students would like to see. So we’re starting earlier – in September – which means that I need to curate at least a starting list of books for us to read. I love this club that allows me to connect with former students as well as current students at the same time.

Books for my own adult book club. We have a big meeting in August where we all recommend and suggest books for the coming 12 months. I read books throughout the year with an eye toward what I might “sell” to my book group. I think about that heavily in the summertime, when my reading life is a bit more flexible and expansive.

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As I write this, my summer is half over. My second half will have a bit different flavor with travel and a conference filling my days. I’m already excited for next year’s class of fourth graders and my new teaching team. I’m excited to continue building my skills (of all sorts) throughout the summer and into the school year. I’m also looking forward to the remaining time to recharge and refill my own energy this summer.

More mountain time. More family and friends. More books. Everything I need.

Choosing HOW We See

Being new to this writing life, I find it interesting what can trigger an inspiration to write…student work, nature, my reading, experiences with others, and more. This post’s inspiration? The photograph included here that taken from inside an umbrella. I didn’t know what I would do with it, nor did I have time to write earlier in the week when I snapped it. But it’s been tiptoeing around in my brain as I planned for a disciplined time to write.IMG_8755

Moments before beginning this, I was looking for quotes for an activity that I’m leading with my fellow teachers next week, and one by Amy Krouse Rosenthal particularly struck me. “I tend to believe whatever you decide to look for you will find, whatever you beckon will eventually beckon you.”

Rereading my posts to see what had inspired earlier writing, I noticed that my current thoughts are similar to my “With Eyes of Wonder” post on 9/25/16. I agree with Rosenthal’s quote, and I think it’s important for me to choose carefully HOW I look at a situation. My photograph was taken on a rainy day. I keep an umbrella at school for those rare Colorado days when we need one. As I was waiting for my students near the end of their PE class, I happened to look up and smiled at the beautiful rainbow in the underside of my umbrella. I clumsily took a few photos, yet ended up with a decent shot. I liked this one because the spokes created a star radiating from the center pole.

That evening, I used my umbrella picture in my gratitude journal. Each evening I take time to list whatever I feel grateful for that day. I limit it to 5-6 items in order to maintain my focus to that particular day. Of course there are things for which I am grateful every single day, but I don’t want my list to become cumbersome by listing everything, nor do I want to feel any obligation when writing my list. I find that my structure supports me in seeing the magic of that day and its unique greatness.

It being the end of the school year, there are student behaviors that my colleagues and I chalk up to “spring fever.” I could respond in numerous ways – get cranky, crack down on rules, excuse it, complain to anyone who will listen, ignore it… And yes, I’ve used all of those in different situations. While these can be helpful coping mechanisms for a few short weeks, at the same time, I want to embody and foster a sense of staying strong to finish the year. That includes the way I look at troublesome behaviors. Does this child have anxiety about change? Is s/he worried about how different the summer will be structured compared to the school year? Is this student already feeling nervous about next year’s teacher and feeling sadness at the anticipation of the end of our time together? Might this student be nervous about our upcoming three-day overnight trip? While I won’t excuse disruptive behaviors, I find that trying to understand off-kilter behavior allows me to demonstrate empathy and truly support a student.

We have an exciting three weeks left of our school year. (Yikes!) Those weeks will fly by with amazing experiences: the conclusion of our final read aloud novel, a visit by the author of that novel, final touches to our digital portfolios, celebrating learning with families at Student Led Conferences, a three-day trip, a pajama day, a field day, one more trip to our campus Challenge Course, and a class party. Our final week will also have necessary tasks that signal the end is near: planning and preparing for our role in the Lower School Closing Ceremony, emptying the walls of student work, emptying desks, and packing up for the summer.

I can easily become overwhelmed when I think of all I want to accomplish and finish before I have to say goodbye to this community of learners. My goal is to stay present in each moment rather than anticipating what I might feel in the future. That is an ideal way to honor this class and truly celebrate what we’ve accomplished together. I will beckon presence.

Learning From My Students

Two of the advantages to the way that our fourth grade team has structured the teaching of science and social studies are that I get to teach both subjects and I have one prep for two classes. I only teach science in the winter trimester, but the units happen to fall within my wheelhouse of interests. While the trimester is a month past, I spent time earlier today (our last day of Spring Break) looking over student reflections of their science experiences and their Design Thinking organizers for our culminating engineering challenge. Themes jumped out at me, and I wanted to be sure to grab them in writing.

For students’ overall science reflection, I created a chart with each of our topics (Energy, Engineering, Simple Machines, Earth Science) and the individual activities or demonstrations that we explored. I asked students to identify for each topic what they liked best and what they were wondering about now that the unit is over.  Five themes emerged in their identified favorites: making posters, choosing partners, building or having hands on experiences, facing challenges, and choosing topics.

Did any of these surprise me? Not at all! In fact their preferences and desires reinforced for me many of the choices that I’ve made in classroom and instructional design. First and foremost is choice. Having opportunities to choose a partner and/or a topic of research helps students become more engaged. As we’re about to begin a small research project in History this week, it’s timely for me to consider how to structure the assignment of topics and partners to determine if I need to manage their teams this time, or if this is a place to give them more choice.

Making posters and building/creating with their hands remind me that my instructional activities need to encompass multiple modes of learning. Unfortunately, history can be dry depending on how it’s presented and explored. My 13 Colonies unit is new for me, and I have intentionally sought out suggestions and ideas from other teachers and resources for ways to incorporate active modes of learning. I’m excited to share them with the students and discover alongside them how effective the activities are.

Finally, facing challenges. Yes! I love seeing evidence that students want to be challenged and pushed. Particularly gratifying is seeing how students have taken their classroom experiences with engineering challenges to inform how they interacted with our high school robotics team. The end of our engineering unit coincided with the robotics team coming to visit us, share their competition robot, and explain their process. We spent 45-60 minutes together, with most of that time directed by fourth graders’ questions. Certainly they had material and task-specific questions similar to: How does it work? What does that part do? How high can it throw a ball? However, they also asked questions that evidenced their comprehension of the design process and wondered how a large team (30-40 students, completely unimaginable to the fourth graders!) was able to collaborate on the robot. My favorite question was How many times did you fail? The fourth graders have hands on experience facing failure in their attempts to meet engineering challenges, so they expected to hear that the high schoolers failed a lot.

IMG_8141Because I wanted my students to explicitly see the stages of Design Thinking in action, for their culminating challenge I created a worksheet to guide them. After I presented their challenge, they all wrote any questions that they had. Then we talked about their questions and refined the parameters of the problem. Next students independently drew or wrote their ideas for a solution,  recording their initial ideas and prototypes. After this, students learned who was on their team and met together to talk about all ideas and to plan a course of action. Only after this step, could students receive any materials to begin building and testing their ideas. This lined up well with learning from the robotics team that for their 6-week build period, they spent the first 7-10 days hashing out different plans before they began to build their robot.

What did fourth graders’ thinking look like on paper? A delightful variety of forms emerged in their organizers and represented different personalities or learning styles:

  • complete sentences
  • jotted or random ideas
  • doodles
  • detailed drawings
  • ordered steps
  • shapes to code their thoughts to the provided prompts
  • questions about process
  • questions about materials

This was the first time that I’ve used an organizer for our littleBits design challenge, and I loved how successful it was. Spending time in these steps really allowed all students to engage with the process and come to their respective groups with ideas to contribute.

I love learning from the students. I look forward to returning to school this week and letting them know that I value their comments and pay attention to their ideas. I admit that I’m also grateful to find affirmation for my teaching and curriculum design choices reflected in their comments.

My favorite discovery in the students’ work? This insightful comment: “Working is learning and trying new things. What is not working is when you just sit there.” Wisdom indeed from a ten-year-old.